August 20, 2014

Small Biz Advice

Questions from staff are an opportunity to teach

Jerry Osteryoung | 5/21/2012

There is no question in my mind that the primary job of a manager or entrepreneur is to help their staff progress and support each employee’s efforts. Your job as the leader of the team is not just to provide a fountain of answers, but to enable your staff to become the best they can be.

So many times when I am consulting with organizations, I see managers who are so busy that all they have time to do is quickly answer questions. Of course, answering questions is important, but if this is the only way you are interacting with your staff, you are not empowering them or using your time efficiently.

Simply answering the question at hand is effective only in the short term. It gets that staff member in and out of your office very quickly but does very little in the long term. Because questions are usually situation-specific, the employee will likely return again and again. There is no real exchange of knowledge and nothing to empower the staff member to deal with issues in the future.

Jerry Osteryoung
Jerry Osteryoung

Think of each question as a training opportunity. Every time a staff member comes to you with a problem, you need to ask them what solution they would recommend. In the beginning, of course, they are not going to have solutions, but if you continue to ask them for their thoughts, they will eventually come to you with suggestions.

Ultimately, of course, it is you who gives the ok, but making the employee think through the situation and propose a solution empowers them while helping develop necessary decision-making skills.

If the employee cannot come up with a good solution, it is the manager’s job to coach them through the process. The first step is helping the staff member articulate what the real issues are. Then they need to identify how these issues affect the business.

For example, consider an employee who is managing a new software conversion. The project is taking more hours than originally budgeted, so this staff member comes to you asking for permission to spend additional funds.

Although going over budget is the problem this employee has brought to you, there is a deeper cause that needs to be addressed. Before dealing with the budget concern, you need to help the employee recognize what caused this problem in the first place and think about how the budgetary process might have been flawed. Once they understand the cause of the problem, without blame, it is so much easier for them to come up with a solution.

Empowering your staff is the key to being a great manager.

The more you can get your staff to figure out problems for themselves, the more they will feel like part of the team. As a bonus, if you train them to come up with good solutions, they will come to you less and you will have fewer interruptions to inhibit your productivity. Interruptions are the number one cause of time management issues.

Now go out and make sure it is your practice to address staff questions as training opportunities. If you continue to ask your employees to offer their own possible solutions, you will develop better decision-makers. I promise your company and staff will be stronger for it.

You can do this!

Go to Links Other small business advice columns from Dr. Osteryoung are here. Note: Articles older than 30 days require registration (it's quick and free).

Jerry Osteryoung is a consultant to businesses - he has directly assisted over 3,000 firms. He is the Jim Moran Professor of Entrepreneurship (Emeritus) and Professor of Finance (Emeritus) at Florida State University. He was the founding Executive Director of The Jim Moran Institute and served in that position from 1995 through 2008. His newest book co-authored with Tim O'Brien, "If You Have Employees, You Really Need This Book," is an bestseller. He can be reached by e-mail at

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